The Greenland White-fronted Goose

Europe's rarest goose chooses to winter on the Wexford Slobs and Harbour - this, of course, is the Greenland race of the White-fronted Goose first recognised and described in 1948 by Dalgety and Scott. At present about 10,000 of these exciting and unusual geese, one third of the world's population, spend seven months of the year, from October to April, in and around the Wexford slob-lands.

When are Greenland White-fronted Geese seen in Wexford?

  • First Greenland White-fronted Geese arrive in Wexford end of September.
  • Main arrival in Wexford is in the middle October.
  • Main departure from Wexford is in the third week of April.
  • Last Greenland White-fronted Geese depart from Wexford at the end of April.

Physical differences between the European (A. a.albifrons) and Greenland (A.a.flavirostris) White-fronted Goose.

The plumage and physical characteristics, when compared with the similar European race A.a.albifrons, are difficult to distinguish even when they are together and careful observation is needed. When the races are separated the following differences from A.a.albifrons should be looked for. A.a.flavirostris shows a long orange-yellow bill, its overall darker plumage, which consists of black-brown mantle (back of neck) and scapulars (some of the wing feathers) have narrower white edges and the rump and back are grey-black. The throat is sometimes dark brown, which, contrasts with the paler brown sides of the head and neck, and the breast is dark brown. The belly and vent tend to be more heavily barred black. In juveniles the short and rounded belly feathers are often dark brown to brown-black and edged white.

How long does a Greenland White-fronted Goose live?

Average life span is about four to five wars. However most die in their first year and some have lived into then- 20s. 70% of adults survive one year to the next.

Due to the concern of the status of this goose throughout its range, with its rapid decline in population from the 1950s to 1970s, various questions were asked by Ruttledge and Ogilvie in 1979 in their paper 'The past and current status of the Greenland White-fronted Goose in Ireland and Britain'. One particular question was "whether the strength of the population on the slobs" was then "kept up to some extent by incursion of birds displaced from elsewhere?" and that "a colour ringing programme could establish if this was so". This helped lead to the considerable amount of research, that has and is taking place, into the species on its wintering grounds, on its migration route and on its breeding grounds in Greenland.

Neck Collar

In 1983, the National Parks and Wildlife Service initiated a catching, marking and re-sighting programme at the Wexford Slobs, which is currently ongoing. This marking programme has been instrumental in finding out much about the complex family structures, the movements and site faithfulness of these magnificent, shy and family orientated birds. The key to this scientific programme is the recognition of the individually marked birds in the field from the collar number (an orange collar with individual code is fitted when the bird is ringed and this enables sighting - up to 800 meters - and the undisturbed observation of the bird's behavior). Noted also are the bird's location, association with other birds present, family structure, body profile (shows condition of the bird) and belly bars (ascertaining whether the amount of black on the belly is related to dominance, etc.). Over 2,500 sightings a year are made on the slobs, each containing the observations mentioned above and relating to approximately 340 individual birds.

Sightings of these birds are also recorded in Greenland, Iceland, Scotland and several places in Ireland and are all part of the re-sighting programme.

The biggest threat to the Wexford flock is the potential of changes in farming practices. The Wexford
Wildfowl Reserve is currently 206 hectares (508 acres). This may look, on the surface, a reasonable refuge, but with grants for various tillage crops, the pressures on the reserve are great. White-front's arrive in the autumn and make use of the food available, such as spilt grain in stubble and bean fields. They then move to grass that continues to grow, though slowly, through the winter in the milder climate of the low-lying slobs of Wexford. The reserve grows fodder beet to supplement the diet during the short days of the winter months. However, by early spring the geese need the 'flush' of fresh spring growing grass to prepare them for their return migration and for the coming breeding season. Increasing grants for tillage crops, plus the recent very wet winters have reduced the overall supply of grass. Quite apart from the cash incentives, spring planted tillage crops are also more attractive to the farmer due to the difficulty of working wet fields in winter. This means early spring ploughing and few winter cereals. This new change in farming practice is creating further disturbance in the early spring, with greater activity on the slobs. In addition, local farmers that do have grass are, by February, keeping geese away from this crop which is being prepared for cattle housed through winter months and fed on expensive products. Two-thirds of the lrish population (which is a third of the world population,) wintering in such a small area, must be cause for concern, and begs the question;

"Is it wise to have so many eggs in one basket?"


Greenland White-fronted Geese normally commence breeding in their third year or later.

There are only around 900 breeding pairs worldwide. Only a small proportion of the sexually mature birds ever breed. When a Greenland White-fronted Goose lays her clutch the eggs are laid approximately every 30 to 36 hours. Average clutch is five to six eggs. Greenland White-fronted Geese lay only one clutch of eggs a year. Incubation takes 25 to 27 days.

White-fronted Goose currently numbers only 30,000 individuals with about two thirds of this wintering in two localities, and that within the last decade the population has numbered less than 18,000 individuals.

The Greenland White-fronted Goose breeds in the low arctic coastal fringe of west Greenland, migrates through south and west Iceland in September and October and winters exclusively in Ireland and Britain. Its winter range, which is confined to Ireland, Scotland, Wales and a small population in west England, is associated with peat bog and low intensity agricultural land habitats. From information available for the last century, it is known that the White-fronted Goose had been numerous and widespread throughout the bogs and marshes of Ireland. However, in the first half of this century the intensification of drainage, the increased loss of habitat and greater disturbance by man meant that alternative wintering areas had to be found. White- fronts were first recorded on the Wexford slobs around 1910.

The large flat open fields of the slob-lands and the safety of the sandbars in the harbour for roosting purposes must have looked attractive for a species that was used to wide open bogs and lakes for its safe wintering quarters.

From 1946 the Greenland White-fronted Goose outnumbered the Graylag Goose on the North Slob, which up to then, had been the more numerous goose there. During the period of the 1950s to 1970s when the rate of goose population decline in Ireland was at its greatest, the actual population using the Wexford Slobs held up remarkably well. Counts carried out in the 1950s showed that the slobs were holding 4,000 to 6,000, whilst the counts in the 1970s showed the slobs to be holding at the same numbers.

How long do the Goslings stay with their parents?

Virtually all goslings remain with at least one of their parents throughout their first winter.

  • 70% remain with one parent throughout their second winter.
  • Just over 50% remain with one parent throughout their third winter.
  • 37% remain with one parent throughout their fourth winter.
  • 35% remain with one parent throughout their fifth winter.
  • 28% remain with one parent throughout their sixth winter.
  • One bird has remained with her mother for eight winters.

How much does a Greenland White-fronted Goose eat?

Intake is between quarter and a third body weight in a day (600 to 800 grams). White-fronted Geese defecate every three minutes(Which means do not stand under a flying flock).

How heavy is a Greenland White-fronted Goose?

Average weight of a Greenland White-fronted Goose is 2442 grams.(or 2 bags of sugar!)

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